Updated: Oct 8
Some books have to be eaten with.
Whether you're on your first or annual reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, you may find yourself hungrily tucking a Tolkien Society bookmark into your volume while you make a little birthday feast for Chapter 1 or so that you can roast mushrooms for Chapter 4 of The Fellowship of the Ring.
And while you may not stew herbed rabbit by the time you reach Ithilien in The Two Towers, you might need to fix your own version of the Gaffer's delight: po-ta-toes. I'd love to sample real miruvor and lembas, but to my taste, the menu that most makes my mouth water in The Lord of the Rings — and which comes closest to the epicurian joy of the dwarves' feast in The Hobbit — is the marvelous supper at The Prancing Pony Inn at Bree. What might these dishes have tasted like? Pull up a chair and eat along with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. There's plenty for all!
First, a note on the importance of inns before we dine
There's a charming 1940s documentary on the story of English Inns which explains how these familiar landmarks trace their history to Dark Age and Medieval monasteries in which a central tenet of the monastic Rule was to offer hospitality to religious pilgrims and wayfarers, free of charge. When Henry VIII cut ties with Catholicism and sacked or sold the great abbeys and other religious centers of refuge for travelers, they were initially replaced by royal inns for the king's court and then by public inns catering to visitors' needs, but this time, for a fee.
Thus, by the time of Jane Austen's Georgian masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, we hear Lady Catherine de Bourgh commanding Elizabeth Bennet to mention her august name at "the Bell" to be well attended to and we find Kitty and Lydia Bennet "dressing a salad and cucumber" and setting out "such cold meat as an inn larder usually affords" at a coaching inn. In Tolkien's own day, inns and taverns like The Bell and the Eagle and Child remained central to society and have become cherished landmarks for generations of his readers. While there is much speculation over which establishments can be definitively linked to the author or claimed as inspirations to his writings, these sanctuaries loom large in the Tolkien legend and Legendarium.
In story, inns play a powerful psychological role. They can be simple meeting places on the map, as The Green Dragon serves Bilbo and the Dwarves at the outset of their adventure. But more potently, the warm lights of an inn glimpsed ahead promise safety for wanderers pursued by the dark of night, foul weather, and even Black Riders. Crossing the threshold, we move out of the wild and onto welcome, familiar ground. We see Professor Tolkien's merciful concept of "recovery, escape and consolation" at its most enjoyable when Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin flee to the safety of The Prancing Pony and find themselves ushered into a hobbit-worthy room for a hobbit-worthy supper.
A detailed look at the food of The Prancing Pony Inn
Here is the "good, plain" meal set before the hobbits by Barliman Butterbur and his servant, Nob, along with the research I did, preparatory to painting this unforgettable scene, into what each dish might be like.
My article, Tolkien and Austen: Better Together explores how the professor's own illustration of Bilbo wearing Georgian or Regency breeches, along with other cultural cues, have helped me associate the Little Folk with Austen's era. We know from Pride and Prejudice that white soup — a potage of high status ingredients like poultry, cream and almonds dating back to at least the 1600s — was considered fit fare for an occasion like the Netherfield Ball. But what would a rustic inn at Bree be serving that the hobbits would consider "homelike enough"?
What could be more fitting than barley soup at the table of man called "Old Barley", and which my 18th century cookbooks tell me consists of mutton, ham, turnips, carrots, and "three gills of barley"? These are all attested Middle-earth ingredients, and the grain makes any broth-based soup incredibly hearty.
Barley is an ancient grain with special relevance to Tolkien readers. In his outstanding lectures on Beowulf, Professor Tom Shippey points out the revelatory correlations between Scyld Scefing (scef meaning "sheaf") and Beow (meaning "barley"), mixing potential agricultural fertility symbols in with the monsters of the Old English poem. Tolkien, himself, wrote King Sheave into The Lost Road. Tolkien knew language and didn't use it thoughtlessly and Barliman's name at The Prancing Pony may be no mere coincidence. After all, we find him amidst great plenty.
If you've never enjoyed barley soup before, do make some. It's just the thing for hungry travelers, and I've served this up in a big, steaming beaten copper kettle of the kind I imagine the smiths of Bree might produce.
Soup broth was often made from the liquid which meats had boiled in, but inns had big fireplaces for roasting meats, as well. I nearly ran out of room on the table, but glimpsed here behind the cauldron is a bit of fire-blackened cold roast mutton. If such a dish smelt toothsome enough to tempt the dwarves to risk a confrontation with trolls, I'm sure it would be welcome in Bree. There might also be poultry and ham, and if Big Folk or Little Folk hunted around the village, wild game such as venison.
Frodo reaches Bree on September 29th, and his visit corresponds with the end of the season for wild blackberries. The European bramble, Rubus Fruticosus, fruits through summer and autumn, and its abundance would make it a fine, economical ingredient for use by thrifty inn cooks.
Georgian society would have been familiar with the nursery rhyme about the queen of hearts who baked some tarts, as it was published in an English magazine in 1782. My early facsimile cookery books don't always agree with one another about what a tart is, but we can consider the famous bakewell tart which is said to have been invented in 1811 at an inn called the Rutland Arms (where, coincidentally, Jane Austen may have stayed while visiting Bakewell, and on which she may have based the village of Lambton).
My research indicates that a defining characteristic of tarts is that they have no top crust, and I have given mine a rustic, free-form pastry, bursting with juicy blackberries and served on an inexpensive wooden trencher. Pastry would have been made with butter or lard, and perhaps the fruit was sweetened with honey, given that hobbits, unlike the English, have never reportedly created a dubious empire from which to import cane sugar. Blackberries do get very sour when cooked, and some sweetening would be welcome.
The 1700s were a turning point for bread. According to the UK's Federation of Bakers, the Georgians began eating more wheat bread, instead of the more traditional barley and rye breads, because of the import of Chinese silk which resulted in finer-sifted flour. Meanwhile the tin mines of Cornwall began producing abundant baking tins, resulting in loaf-shaped breads. One wonders if the dwarves ever got into this trade. While we don't know whether Barliman's establishment baked its own bread, took dough to a communal oven in Bree, or sent out to the local baker for it, he would have needed vast quantities to keep his guests fed. I've gone with a wheat loaf, a barley loaf and a dark rye loaf for the hobbits' delight. These would have been wholesome, nutritious whole grain loaves with delicious crusts and just the thing for making up a sandwich of the meats, cheeses, and butter on the table.
Tolkien readers can't think of bread flour without thinking of both the practical and symbolic role of mills. A simple water mill of the pre-ruffian kind might have ground enough local grain for Bywater bread without too much environmental damage, but Saruman's 'steaming and stinking' brick mill pollutes the Shire and encapsulates Tolkien's disgust with the Industrial Revolution that laid waste to the cherished countryside. We can hope that Bree's grain mills were of the more sustainable variety, and can come closest to capturing Prancing Pony bread if we bake our own loaves.
Slabs of Butter
Modern readers who have never seen butter in any form besides a supermarket cube may find it hard to picture a slab of butter. Here, you'll see it at right, wrapped in a clean cloth and mounded on a wooden serving board. Some inns might have used stone slabs to keep the butter cool. If this looks like a lot of butter, it is, and it's interesting to know that, in some northern European countries, it's still common to buy this dairy product in incredibly large quantities.
It's worthwhile to speculate about the domesticated animals of Middle-earth. Presumably, the Big Folk of Bree have cows as large as the heritage breeds that were common to England several hundred years ago. But what about the hobbits? A full-sized cow would have been of colossal size on their farms, and just as they have little hobbit ponies, it's reasonable to guess that they could have specialized in diminutive bovine breeds. There is a cow known as the Georgian Mountain Cow that stands little over three feet, so perhaps the the hobbits might have brought such an animal over the mountains with them at the time of their migration.
Doubtless, given the enormous quantities of butter Barliman would have needed for his larder, he was likely to have contracts with many Bree farmwives amongst both the Big and Little Folk, if he did not churn his own.
Half a Ripe Cheese
According to EnglishHeritage.org, it was the yellow-orange Cheshire cheese that enjoyed hundreds of years of popularity before the arrival of Victorian Cheddar. There's mention of it as far back as the 11th century Domesday book, and I've modeled my cheese on that variety. It's described as a mild, salty, dense, crumbly cheese made from cow's milk and the hobbits might have eaten it both on their bread and with their blackberry tart. 18th century travel diaries mention eating toasted cheese at inns and Austen's novels mention both Stilton and cream cheeses. It's possible that Barliman's staff might have made fresh cream cheeses in the inn's kitchen, but it's likely he would have ordered cheese in from local dairy farms in order to feed so many guests.
A Picture of Plenty
One of the most lovable and relatable characteristics of hobbit-folk is their great enjoyment of food. Tolkien doesn't describe what Bilbo plans to eat at his nice little second breakfast in The Hobbit, but considering the texts and the season, I filled his table with warm muffins, preserves, wild strawberries, fruit tarts, seedcake and mushrooms. I wanted to give the Halflings' love of table the full Vermeer treatment in the above piece, and I savored every bit of the work, enjoying feeding dear Bilbo the best fare I could find for him and setting his table with April bluebells, buttercups and chickweed.
An under-fed hobbit is a dreadful idea, and we know that their kind once struggled to survive the Days of Dearth, when famine followed the Long Winter of T.A. 2758-2759. As an Irish-American whose ancestors miraculously outlived the potato famine and who has experienced periods of long hunger in my own life due to illness, I want everyone's plate to be full, all the time. And it's because we know how much happiness hobbits derive from eating that we feel dreadful knowing that Frodo and Sam will go hungry, in future, in pitiless Mordor.
But as I have come to see and so appreciate, J.R.R. Tolkien is a merciful writer. He knows adventuring hobbits will have to tighten their belts, but he balances want and sorrow with periods of blessed relief. From Bilbo's birthday feast, to Farmer Maggot's roast mushrooms, from the food and drink shared by Gildor Inglorion's folk with the little hobbits above Woodhall, to Tom Bombadil's board of natural bounty, the company finds a way to eat as they go, for most of the journey. Elrond feasts them, Lothlorien nourishes them and Treebeard slakes them. Merry can put on a little weight by the longfire of The Golden Hall and Pippin quickly finds his way to Gondor's butteries. And we know, that even when all hope seems lost, Frodo and Sam will eat again in the new days of peace they have won for the king.
A last detail I had to include on my Prancing Pony Inn table was Barlimen's bell, which is a meaningful symbol of hospitality. The hobbit's board is filled to the edges with food, but the innkeeper says,
"Ring the bell, if you lack anything."
Many Tolkien readers live in places where dependence on food banks has risen to levels our communities have never seen before due to the Sharkey economics of our own Age. Every living being merits food. It is joy, comfort, and life. If we have the means to donate, we, too can place a bell on someone's table and give them the cared-for knowledge that if they lack anything, we will answer their ring. Wishing all of the hobbits, everywhere, a merciful abundance.